Never too Young to be a Project Manager

Developing Life Skills through Project Management

I am a strong supporter and believer in the great work my friend Gary has undertaken with regards to focusing on our future generation of project manager and I am delighted to share a blog from him:

Gary M Nelson, PMP is an experienced project manager, father of three boys and author of several project management books, including Gazza’s Guide to Practical Project Management and The Project Kids Adventures series (ages 8-12). His international experience includes projects in New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Canada, and has spanned three major industries since 1989.

How old do you have to be in order to become a Project Manager? Many of you reading this may be new or aspiring Project Managers, or perhaps you are completing a degree in Project Management. Once you have that piece of paper, you’ve got to get your first PM job – and then you’re a real Project Manager, right? So, let’s say at least 20-25 years old, or older if you are coming into the profession from another one after working for a while.

You have to be at least that old, right? Because managing projects is tough. You need a lot of training, experience, an iron will and a cast-iron stomach in order to be able to deal with all of the challenges and complexities that your sponsor, stakeholders, vendors and customers will throw at you. If you manage to survive the experience, you will take those lessons learned and battle scars with you as you strive to improve on the next project. Sometimes it seems that if you are not some sort of Superman, you won’t survive.

You obviously need a lot of maturity to go with that thick skin – projects are no place for kids.

Hold up, that can’t be right.

Managing projects does not have to be tough. Not only that, I submit to you that managing projects is actually so simple that a child could do it.

Of course, they may not be quite ready to tackle a multi-million dollar project, but I assure you that children can – and do – manage projects every day. The big difference between their projects and yours is scale and language.

Tell them a Story

Project Management concepts are actually not that hard to understand, but you do need to consider the language you use when teaching children and young adults. You would not use the same terminology with a College student as you would for a 5th grader, but you can convey the same important concepts at any age.

You also need to consider the delivery vehicle for the message – throw a dry Project Management textbook in front of almost anyone and they will soon use it as a makeshift pillow.

But if you tell a story, well, that makes a big difference. No matter how young or old they are, people love stories. You can enrich a college classroom and enliven a dry text book with stories from the trenches and anecdotes from real-world projects, talking about what worked, what didn’t, what challenges you encountered and how you dealt with them.

If your audience is composed of children, you would be less likely to use work anecdotes – but there are plenty of ways to utilize stories to pass on important concepts. One good example of this is Before the Snow Flies: Lando Banager’s Tales of a Woodland Project Manager by Ira A. Seiken, PMP (2010). This colorful children’s book for ages 6+ introduces a number of project management concepts through the story of a beaver helping others to finish their dam on time – as a project.

My own Project Kids Adventures Series books for children (ages 8-12+) convey a range of Project Management concepts and lessons through fun stories.

Peter_Taylor_Gary_Nelson

These full-length chapter books begin with The Ultimate Tree House Project (2013), and follow eight children (four boys, four girls) as they embark on numerous “adventures”, learning project skills along the way. Here’s what happens in The Ultimate Tree House Project:

10 year old best friends Ben, James, Tim & Tom find the perfect tree in a forest near their school and begin to build the Ultimate Tree House. Things start with a bang, and get even worse when Ben’s sister Amanda discovers them working on their secret tree house. Next thing they know, the girls are building their own – in the same tree – and it looks even better than the boy’s! How are they doing it? What is their secret weapon? After the accident, everything changes and the boys are forced to team up with the girls – as if that would ever work!

This book introduces basic Project Management concepts to children through an entertaining, funny story and simple lessons taught to one of the children by her father who is (of course) a Project Manager. She applies what she has learned and suddenly the girls are leaping ahead of the boys who had just “started building” – without a plan.

Tell a good story – and people will read or listen, and learn from it. But what about the classroom – how can they learn Project Management skills in school?

The Changing Face of Education

In the old, old days of the “accidental project manager”, there was very little in the way of formal education on Project Management, or even formal recognition of Project Management as a “real” profession. Times certainly have changed – it has become a highly valued professional skill, and there are many tertiary courses and degree programs in Project Management.

There has also been a lot of effort over the past few years on introducing Project Management concepts into High School programs, including Project-Based Learning for Students Ages 13-19, a non-profit program offered by the PMI Education Foundation (www.pmi.org/pmief).

More and more primary school programs are beginning to utilize project-based learning methods (whether they call them projects or not), and these have been highly successful. One example of this at is MOTE (Mantle of the Expert), in which the whole class spends a few weeks on an in-class adventure, learning a range of skills across many curriculum areas. My two youngest children both participated in MOTE at their primary school, and they had so much fun they did not realize how much they were learning on their project.

Mantle of the Expert has been described as ‘a dramatic inquiry-learning based approach to teaching and learning’ (mantleoftheexpert.com). First developed by Prof. Dorothy Heathcote at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK during the 1980s, Mantle of the Expert is a fully ‘incorporated’ approach in which children learn across all curriculum areas by taking on the roles of experts engaged in a high status project for a fictional client.

Another highly successful program in helping to educate Primary and Secondary school students on Project concepts is Projects From the Future, a kit for teachers developed by the PMI Northern Italy Chapter (www.pmi-nic.org), also available through the PMI Education Foundation.

“OK”, you say – “so children can learn Project Management concepts – but can they really manage projects?”

Yes – they can, not only in a classroom setting, but in real life too. In my experience, the ideal age to start having kids manage their own small projects is around 10-11 years old. You might go a little bit younger, but 10 is a good starting age. When they reach this age, they begin to develop an appreciation of what they are doing – and why they are doing it.

Be Prepared – Go Camping!

I was a Scout leader for ten years before I had my own children, and I was constantly surprised at how resourceful those 10-14 year old youths could be. One key thing I noticed was that if you treated them like children, they behaved like children. However, if you set them up with challenges that encouraged them to grow, they invariably rose to the occasion, expanded their skills and gained self-confidence. At the time, I did not know anything about Project Management – we just thought we were teaching them basic skills to help them succeed in life, or at least not get too wet or hungry at camp.

Looking back with a Project Manager’s eye, I can see that we were also teaching them a range of basic project management skills. At first, we did a lot of the work for them, but as they learned what to do and practiced, they did more for themselves. As they progressed, we placed more and more expectations on the senior scouts. They eventually had to organize and plan everything with their patrols, right down to how many vehicles and drivers would be needed for a camp. They even had to ask for resources – they could not just assume the leader or vehicle would be available.

Organizing a camp? It’s a project!

  • Strategic planning – Where should we go? How many days away? What would we experience or learn from one location vs another? Were some sites better for summer vs winter camping? What badge requirements could be met by adding activities during this camp?
  • Coordination – logistics around patrols, tents, equipment, transportation
  • Resource management – Who was going? How many adults/vehicles would be needed? What resources did we need for badge work?
  • Budgeting – For fuel, campsite costs, food, etc.
  • Estimating – Number of tents, amount/type of food, other gear requirements

Setting up a campsite?

  • Tactical planning – Nearness to water, site assessment for level/higher ground, etc.
  • Risk management – Distance from tents to the fire, proper food/fuel storage, safe handling of tools
  • Utilizing lessons learned from previous camps – don’t pitch a tent in a dip!
  • Going on a long hike, or doing a bit of mountaineering? Teamwork, communication and leadership were essential.

Lessons learned? You bet – after each hike or camp we reviewed what went well and could have gone better. What equipment did we not use or need? How could we pack lighter? What could we add next time that would make for a better camp? Did we have enough rope?

Over the years we had a lot of great experiences with the Scouts as they progressed through the program, entering as children and moving on as confident youths. It was only later that I came to realize that most of the major activities – and a lot of their key learning – involved the successful (and in the early days not-so-successful) execution of projects.

However, this type of learning is not limited to Scouts – everyone can learn life skills through projects.

Essential Life Skills

Learning to manage projects successfully (and learn from your mistakes) is an essential life skill – and you are never too young (or too old) to learn how to do it. It is somehow easy to think that children are just children – we forget that they are growing, developing and in a few short years will become adults. What we teach them now will have a huge impact on their future direction and capabilities.

Treat them like children, and they will behave as children – but teach them, lead them and encourage them, and they will surprise you with how much they can do, right now.

If you systematically equip them with these life skills now, there is no telling what they may become, however you can be assured that they will be better prepared to become the leaders of tomorrow, to become not only smart project managers of the future but perhaps even smarter than smart…

 

Gary Nelson: Author – Project Manager – Speaker Gary is passionate about sharing knowledge and making Project Management concepts more accessible, particularly to new and aspiring Project Managers (of all ages). Said another way, he likes to tell stories to help convey complex concepts in a way that helps the concepts “stick”. Who says learning shouldn’t be fun? He is an IT Project Manager who has worked in the Telecom, Student Information Systems and Local Government sectors since graduating from Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada) in 1989. His international experience includes projects in New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Canada. Gary is a long-term volunteer with PMI, and has served as a Board member for the PMI West Coast B.C. Chapter and for the PMI New Zealand Chapter.

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2 Responses to “Never too Young to be a Project Manager”

  1. Easy Projects (@easyprojectsnet) Says:

    This is such a great idea! It’s absolutely true – there’s no use in overcomplicating project management.
    Does Gary have a Twitter account to follow?

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